Buoyant, rousing, and simmering with simple charms, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a quirky, endearing coming-of-age chronicle; an energetic, respectful sleeper hit; and a fresh take on the quiet stumbles between adolescence and adulthood. If it’s coy and cute and a bit cloying, it’s also heartfelt and handmade entertainment that will have you reaching for a tissue.
Awkward Pittsburgh high school senior Greg (Thomas Mann) spends most of his time sidestepping cliques and making low-budget parodies of classic films with his “co-worker” Earl (RJ Cyler), with titles like “Senior Citizen Kane,” “A Sockwork Orange,” “2:48 pm Cowboy,” and “Pooping Tom.” He finds his outlook forever altered after his mother forces him to befriend classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke), recently diagnosed with leukemia. Greg and Earl decide to make a film for Rachel.
Winner of both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at Sundance (a feat duplicated by such esteemed forerunners as Fruitvale Station and Whiplash), Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is overflowing with good qualities: it’s hip and funny in its first half, thoughtful and poignant in its latter half, small and touching overall. It has components of every teen angst-ridden dramedy since the turn of the century: the chronological title cards of 500 Days of Summer, the isolated protagonist of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the (accidental) drug consumption of The Spectacular Now.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon takes the caustically-titled “cancer comedy” subgenre (launched by similarly-themed 50/50) and merges it with an ordinary story about male-female friendship, employing a fishbowl lens and clay animation to clever effect. There is an unabashed sincerity on display, a love of cinema and the emotions that it can convey, that bring certain moments close to the irresistible. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is original and unpredictable, albeit sometimes to its detriment: some characters are metaphorically cut off mid-sentence or used as props for the two-hander at the forefront.
Writer Jesse Andrews, adapting his own novel, does a quite admirable job with the screenplay, although its effectiveness could perhaps be attributed to the mouthpieces rather than the words. Mann is a well-cast “everyman,” insecure and unhandsome and loveable even when he’s frustrating. Cyler is even better, a kind of creative, deadpan truth-teller that refuses to sugarcoat the harsh realities becoming impossible to ignore. Cooke (a Rose Byrne doppelgänger), the best of the trio, can convey giddy excitement with a twinkling eye, or crushing sadness with a shoulder shrug. She never inspires pity, only sympathetic admiration.
Yet despite its snappy pace, sprightly voice, and stylistic flourishes, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl isn’t the Sundance knockout rumoured immediately following its auspicious debut. It plays more like a Wes Anderson knockoff, calibrated to seem laid-back, or a The Fault in Our Stars mashup with the saccharine tendencies swapped out for tenderness and wry humour. At 105 minutes, the film’s at least 10 minutes too long, with three different endings that work to varying degrees of success. The multiple bait-and-switch comments feel contrived (“this isn’t a touching romantic story”; “don’t worry, she’s not going to die”), especially when the narrative’s laid out in the title.
Sure, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a wispy, weepy, whimsical cocktail brewed from previous Sundance favourites. It’s still got heart and soul and talent, and that counts for a lot. Two things are certain: it’s destined to put Cooke on the map, and to be a hell of a crowdpleaser all its own.